“Here in my isolation I can grow stronger. Poetry seems to come of itself, without effort, and I need only let myself dream a little while painting to suggest it.” ~ Paul Gauguin
“Because she favours solitude and indwelling, an artist can live a significantly more claustrophobic life that she had ever intended.” ~ Eric Maisel
“The ecstatic state of wholeness is bound to be transient because it has no part in the total pattern of ‘adaptation through maladaptation’ which is characteristic of our species… the hunger of imagination, the desire and pursuit of the whole, take origin from the realization that something is missing, from awareness of incompleteness.”
― Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self
Sometimes I look back on all of my relationships and am tempted to conclude that the longest and most powerful one, my “primary relationship” has been with solitude itself. It is in the accumulated years of a life alone in a room with work, or in the fields or the streets, wandering, that I have always felt most “my self.” Alone, there is no one to entertain or impress –– only impressions themselves and the gathering of them. If I am lucky there is not even a gatherer, just the verb itself, and some editing hand does the work without my being aware of paying attention, resulting in a collected sense of “coming to my self” ie. experiencing “meaning.”
For an artist the product of this inner process often lives intangibly for a long time. It’s a glimmer, a felt-sense of possibility. Hammering it out into a Real Thing and accepting the distance between promise and actuality can mean a long-distance swim through the slough of doubt, with no wetsuit and no cage to ward off sharks. This is where the fabled suffering of the artist comes in, and it seems to be what most fascinates therapists, analysts, and the people who pay them. The tension I feel between public and private, inner state and outer product, has lately been exacerbated by social media, and the paradox that while one is completely alone in a room there is a potential audience of millions sitting just on the other side of the Device. Others are there, yet not-there. Silence takes on new shapes, as does doubt.
One can always use back-up on irresolvable dilemmas, so I immediately said yes when recently invited to a lecture on “Solitude and Creativity.” The lecture kicked off a weekend sponsored by the Seattle Psychoanalytic Society on “Solitude and Relatedness in Art and Life.” It seemed they had custom made this lecture for me! I conveniently forgot, as I often do when buying tickets to such things, the phenomenon of cultural narcolepsy. It’s the four-foot rule: if a cultural authority is more than four feet away from me and speaking in a darkened room, I fall asleep. Which I promptly did on this occasion, soothed by the comfortable seats and the hush of academic politeness in the auditorium of the Frye Museum.
The hush was abruptly shattered by what will always in the future be spoken of as The Outburst. Lights up, question and answer period murmuring and slow….. references to the speaker’s previous books…. the cost of isolation….. the danger of delusion, and anecdotes of famous artists. Out of nowhere comes the wild man, shouting, half-leaping from his seat with the power of each exclamation point. “I don’t see your face!” he began, jabbing his finger in the air in the direction of the woman on stage. (We can all agree on this first sentence, and this only.) From here unspooled a passionately escalating rant of about three minutes, during which the audience collectively clenched the armrests, and security hovered in the wings. Did the man have a gun? How to deal? Will he take over the entire discussion, like a Trotskyite at a PTA meeting? Does he have cohorts? The speaker on stage did not acknowledge one word of his commentary, and turned crisply to the next questioner. Everyone exhaled, and I started taking notes. Because what he said, or what I thought he said was worth the price of a two hour nap.
But first, what various companions in the audience said he said:
I don’t know, I have no idea what he said, he was so angry, it seemed like years of anger, and it seemed very personal. I was afraid.
He was just crazy. He seemed to think she was his mother.
He kept saying he couldn’t see her face, and he meant that in daily life, in modern life, we don’t see each other. He was talking about the alienation and loneliness of modern life.
Whatever he was talking about, it was completely off-topic.
This being a psycholanalytic gathering we must accept that projection happens, and is perhaps the only currency of “reality.” I’ll accept that my own memory and notes were complete projection. But I heard the man say, “I don’t see your face, I see the color and the shape. But I do not know who you are…” and from there the increasingly adamant tirade addressed the fallacy of her entire premise, that there was a person alone in a studio “being alone” and that there was some kind of suffering. To him there was no alone, there was no person being alone, there was in fact just the unconditional and unidentified: the shape, the color, the abstraction. And this resulted in products (called “art”) that reflected this state, a valuable and irreplaceable state that can only be accessed in solitude. His perspective was not unlike that of a spiritual teacher who chides the student asking about how they will know when they have achieved enlightenment. The answer is likely to blow up the idea of a ‘self’ even being aware of achieving a ‘thing’ called enlightenment, and the student will feel both shamed and annoyed at how off-topic the answer was.
Truly, I don’t go into my studio hoping to brood or do heroic battle with loneliness. I would like to keep my equanimity and both of my ears nicely attached to my head. I go, however, hoping to step into the unconditional, in some unexpected form. Some artwork is the scaffold, the steps to getting to that state, and other work is a report back from direct experience. If we are lucky, the report gives the viewer a glimpse. No face, no name, no limits, just being there. When I see that kind of work I am very hopeful, and transfixed.
It is quite possible the man was off-topic, that he was delusional, ‘mad’ in both senses, yet what he said seemed to me quite wonderful. If anybody was there that night who would like to share their memory of The Outburst, what was said, and what it meant to you, I will be very curious. I am happy to trade projections with you any time.
A few of my favorite writers on solitude, meaning and art:
Anthony Storr, Solitude, a Return to the Self
James Hillman, The Soul’s Code
Eric Maisel, Coaching the Artist Within
And a video interview with the inimitable Agnes Martin